The University of Kentucky’s investigation into hazing in its cheerleading program, which has resulted in the firing of the entire coaching staff, revealed more about the dynamics of teams, institutions, and the handling of misconduct than it did about the behavior of a large group of college kids on a trip away from campus.
The school’s investigation began in February, when allegations were brought to the Office of Institutional Equity and Equal Opportunity that “included financial mismanagement, that the team members were encouraged to drink to excess, perform a lewd chant, engage in nudity at team events, engage in sexual activity with each other, and that coaches operated businesses that used the Cheerleading team or the University’s brand in an unethical manner.”
That’s a heavy slate of accusations, with the report going on to state that “there were multiple allegations made by the Reporting Party that … some team members were touched in a sexual manner without their consent, that male team members compared [the] sizes of their genitalia, and that students were forced to engage in oral sex.” However, “there were no individuals who confirmed any of these allegations. With no information provided by any individual interviewed to suggest that these allegations occurred, Institutional Equity has concluded these allegations are without merit.”
So, was the whistleblower’s whole story a fabrication? No, it wasn’t, as the university’s investigation found evidence “sufficient to establish (1) that the team engaged in topless or bottomless basket-tosses, depending on their sex, while on their team retreat, (2) that students were told to wear no underwear to their “initiation” as a cheerleader while at the UCA cheer camp, and (3) that while at the team retreat, students were encouraged to be naked on a boat provided by alumni.”
It’s the partial nudity that winds up being the most compelling. Of the sexual activities described, it was “voluntarily, or through peer pressure,” and in that regard, the least egregious allegation, one that does not reach the threshold of sexual assault. Here’s where we get a window into how people, as part of a team, respond to their team being called on out-of-bounds behavior.
“The allegation related to the basket tosses is that members of the team either voluntarily, or through peer pressure, do basket tosses, either topless or bottomless, depending on the sex of the individual, off the boat dock at the 4-H camp into the water,” the report states. “Through the team investigation, two individuals stated they did a basket-toss while topless, eleven individuals stated that they observed a topless or bottomless basket-toss during their time on the team, and seven individuals stated they had not done or seen one done, but had heard about others engaging in topless or bottomless basket-tosses.”
That would be 18 out of 20 team members saying that they, themselves, had not participated in the behavior, but a majority saying they’d seen it, and all having at least some knowledge of it.
So, if pretty much everyone knew this was happening, what about the coaches? Now some inconsistency starts to creep in, as it’s the coaches who are on the line in this investigation for lax supervision and upholding of standards.
“Several individuals stated that the coaches typically were on the dock or the shore nearby and at least fifteen team members indicated they believed the coaches were watching the basket tosses occur,” the report says. “Some team members stated that the coaches were not around for the basket-tosses and that (head coach Jomo) Thompson would be mad if he saw them. Most team members said that a coach was always at the lake if the team members were there.”
For his part, Thompson “emphasized he has never seen anyone do (a basket toss) partially nude,” according to the report, and “stated that if he had witnessed this occurring, he would have intervened. He did state that he has heard rumors that team members sometimes skinny-dip after the coaches are in bed.” That last claim, which offers a hilarious sheen of plausible deniability, is footnoted, “There were no team members interviewed who indicated that they had engaged in this behavior.”
Where things fall apart is with the three assistant coaches — Kelsey LaCroix, Spencer Clan and Ben Head — all graduates of the Kentucky cheerleading program in the last three years.
“LaCroix indicated that she was aware that the team did topless basket-tosses … stated that these basket-tosses do happen in front of the coaches, she believes they did happen during the 2019 retreat, and that she’s not aware of a coach ever telling team members to stop doing them.
“Clan indicated he had never seen basket tossing being done in this state of undress but did acknowledge that the team members do baskets into the lake and that he had seen them being done.
“Head states that he is aware that the team does basket-tosses into the lake and that this year he participated in the basket-tosses but stated that he is unaware of anyone doing a basket-toss topless.”
Everyone on the team is at least aware of the partial nudity happening, and one assistant coach who was recently on the team acknowledged it’s happening, but it’s all news to her two fellow assistants and former teammates. It’s interesting what happens when someone has some burden of responsibility, and when they go from anonymously speaking to investigators to being on the record with school officials determining whether they remain employed.
Last, but not least, there’s T. Lynn Williamson, who has “been with the Cheerleading program since its inception in the early 1980s … but has in recent years moved into an informal advisory capacity. The assistant coaches referred to him as the ‘grandfather’ of the team and team members saw him as a disciplinarian.”
Williamson spent most of his days during the camp preparing meals, but would go for a daily swim in the lake. And his story perfectly exhibits what’s at play here.
“Williamson indicated that he was aware,” the report says. “He was unable to give an exact date, but stated that either during the 2017 or 2018 retreat, he went to the dock from the kitchen for a swim and noted that the team was doing basket-tosses.”
Note the lack of specificity in the year. It definitely wasn’t last summer, the one under investigation, but he also can’t say exactly which year it was.
“Mr. Williamson stated that while he was preparing to swim, including taking off his glasses and putting them in his bag, he heard the team members laughing and yelling and ‘generally having fun,’” the report continues. “When he looked up, he saw a male cheerleader throw a life belt to the female cheerleader who had just been tossed into the lake.”
Taking off his glasses is a fantastic detail, and it’s obvious why it’s important. Can’t really give detail on what you can’t really see, after all.
“As he watched, he noticed it happening again, and then realized that the female cheerleaders were taking off their tops before they were thrown and that the male cheerleaders were throwing their tops to them in the lake. Mr. Williamson indicated he wasn’t able to see clearly because his glasses had already been removed and was in a state of shock because this had never happened in the almost 40 years he had been attending the retreat.”
He couldn’t believe his eyes, but also couldn’t put his glasses back on to be sure that he was seeing what he thought he was seeing, an unprecedented breach of protocol in his four decades associated with this program.
“Mr. Williamson stated he bent down, picked up his bag, turned around, went back to the kitchen, and did not mention this event to anyone. Mr. Williamson also stated he was not sure whether any of the team members saw him at the dock. When asked why he didn’t report it or intervene, he simply said he wanted to believe it didn’t happen.”
This man is described as the “disciplinarian,” but when he saw something so out of line as to put him in “a state of shock,” he told nobody, because he “wanted to believe it didn’t happen.” And this was just about some young women taking their own tops off, getting thrown in the lake, and getting their tops right back.
Imagine if it was something more serious. Or think of Penn State football, Michigan State gymnastics, Ohio State wrestling, or any team where abuse happened and, rather than do what was responsible, people looked the other way to protect the institution, the program, and the money it generated, rather than the victims. Whether that pattern continued with the allegations that Kentucky concluded were “without merit” is impossible to say, but the inconsistencies in the stories told about the most benign of the cheerleading team’s misbehavior illustrates why it’s so difficult to confirm the details about things that are truly damaging to people’s lives, and that would be damaging to a sports program.